Misconceptions About Remote Work
This is a chapter from the upcoming book “Remote Work – The Complete Guide” which we will be publishing first on Simple Programmer. You can get the book for an EXCLUSIVE MEMBERS DISCOUNT, just click here.
Have you ever discussed remote work with someone who has never worked remotely? How did it go? If they were like most people, it probably didn’t go all that well. It can be difficult for people to understand how someone could work from home, be productive, and end up being a normal human being at the end of the day.
Whether they are concerned about the quality of life that a remote worker can expect, assert that career growth is impossible while working remotely, or even comment on needing to have everyone on-site for “communication,” you’ll hear from plenty of cynics, you being an advocate for remote work.
While there are legitimate concerns about how businesses operate with remote workers, most of the issues people bring up are simple misconceptions.
You’ll also find that in addition to misunderstandings about remote work, there are many misconceptions about the people who work remotely. At some point during your career, you’ll have to face these if you want to be able to work remotely. While the mistaken assumptions of the general public are not your problem, your employer is a member of the general public. Any misconception that is widespread in the population is likely to be shared by them.
Rather than racking your brain or doing an internet search to help you address a misconception, all the answers are here so that you can refer to them when you encounter a skeptic.
There is another reason we are discussing these misconceptions now. As you move forward with your plan to build your remote working environment and convince your boss to let you use it, you should be aware of these objections so that you can design your workspace and systems to make as many of these objections invalid as you possibly can.
Quality of Life
When discussing the practice of working remotely, one of the most common strategies that people use to derail the conversation is talking about how remote work “harms” the remote worker.
While there are legitimate issues that can make remote work a risk to a person’s sanity and health, most of those are far more easily mitigated than similar risks in an office environment.
It’s common for people who dislike the idea of remote work to try and paint home offices as awful dystopias when the modern open office plan couldn’t even have been imagined by Dante when he wrote the Inferno. The modern office is only the preferred dystopia because it is a well-known dystopia, not because it isn’t a dystopia.
The arguments against remote work that discuss quality of life are fairly predictable and easily countered. In fact, these are so predictable that you’re likely to encounter most of them within the first six months of working remotely. I know I did, as did a number of my friends.
Such assertions also come up in internet forums as well, especially when managers are trying to understand why their employees might want to work from home.
Remote Workers Are Isolated and Lonely
One of the most commonly stated myths about remote workers is that they are isolated and lonely. Out of all the criticisms of remote work, this is the one that I’ve experienced the most. Essentially, the claim is that because remote employees don’t interact with their co-workers face to face, they don’t interact with anyone at all.
There are multiple, deeply false premises in this myth. The first is that people cannot interact effectively without being face to face. While remote employees are not constantly in the office with their co-workers, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t interacting.
In fact, remote interactions are often better because they are intentional. Rather than a random co-worker interrupting you to talk about last week’s game while you are facing an impending deadline, an interaction with another remote employee needs to be decided upon in advance and generally agreed upon by both parties. In contrast to disruptive office chatter and gossip, remote interactions tend to be more considerate and positive than in-office interactions.
There is another false premise within the notion that remote workers are lonely. When making the assertion that people are lonely because of the lack of office interactions, people tend to forget that the office environment is not the entirety of someone’s interpersonal interactions.
Generally, people have families, friends, and neighbors whom they interact with outside of work. Working remotely actually gives you time to interact with those people both during the workweek and possibly even during the workday.
Rather than driving halfway across the city to work at a desk and spending much of your “free” time staring at other people’s brake lights, working in a remote position allows you to interact more with the people you care most about.
The final false premise within this notion is that being alone is synonymous with loneliness. While many people can’t stand being in a quiet room by themselves, there are a large number of people who actually prefer to be alone. For those who prefer quiet and solitude, the typical open office environment is as uncomfortable as solitude is for the extrovert.
Remote Workers Are Overworked
Another common misconception is that remote workers have an excessive amount of work. Because the effectiveness of remote workers can only really be determined by their work product (instead of their presence), one might be forgiven for believing that a remote worker needs to complete substantially more work to meet management’s expectations.
This criticism has some reasonable elements. In organizations without formal evaluation processes, a dynamic can develop where remote employees are overworked in an effort to prove that they are effective.
However, in these organizations, the same dynamic also applies to the more efficient workers in the office. If an employee gets more done than other employees in the same number of hours, the lack of a formal process of evaluation will ensure that their efficiency is neither recognized nor rewarded. In this case, it’s the lack of formal processes in the office that are the problem.
One of the best things about remote-friendly companies is that they must have a more reasonable way of evaluating their employees simply to operate well. If the company is not operating well, it’s unlikely to be any better for those who go into the office.
Remote Workers Have Poor Work/Life Balance and Are Connected 24/7
Another common assertion that is made regarding remote workers is that they have no work/life balance, are available 24/7, and are constantly having their family time interrupted by work-related concerns.
As someone who has worked remotely quite a bit, I’ve rarely experienced this, and only when a tight deadline is approaching. It is short-term, directly related to a small, temporary problem and is usually followed by extended periods of time in which work/life balance is respected.
Like working in an office environment, working from home for most organizations will occasionally require you to work a few extra hours in response to an aggressive deadline or an outage or as a result of major changes in the team.
Similarly, just like being in an office, if you are frequently having to work long hours, that’s usually a sign that the company is doing something wrong rather than a characteristic of working remotely.
In fact, in a remote environment, excessive work hours are an even more sure sign of a pathological working environment than they are in an office, since the employees have more flexible working conditions and work hours. For instance, in an office, you might end up working a little extra because at least part of the day is not an effective work time for you or because of noise and other interruptions. However, if you are able to choose when you work, can carefully mitigate most interruptions, and work in an optimal environment, it’s a really bad sign if you still end overloaded.
Remote Workers Can Work Even When They Are Sick
Another common misconception is that remote workers can or should work while they are too sick to go in to the office. While most of us who work remotely have done so (especially when we were younger and thought ourselves indestructible), this is only occasionally true.
For the most part, if an employee is too sick to go into the office, they are probably too sick to work effectively from home. This doesn’t mean that you can’t try to work when you are sick, but it does mean that you shouldn’t be expected to do so.
Remote employees do have a few advantages when it comes to working while sick. In some cases, a medical situation may mean that you can’t reasonably drive into an office but you are still capable of working.
For instance, after hernia surgery, I was capable of working sitting up in bed within a couple of days but couldn’t drive for nearly a week. Being able to work remotely meant that had my absence been unplanned, it still wouldn’t have been an emergency for the team. As it was, I ended up working from bed because I was bored and moving hurt too much.
Even when working remotely, employment laws still apply. This means that employers generally will not force you to work while you are too sick to do so. However, you’ll have the option to do so if you feel that you need to. This can also help save your sick days for when they are really needed rather than wasting them simply because you have a light fever.
Home Offices Are Not Healthy, Ergonomic, or Appropriate for Work
When discussing remote work, another concern that is frequently brought up is that home offices are often considered to be poor working spaces.
Whether it’s about being crammed into a crowded closet to work, tables and chairs that are not ergonomic, or even that the environment at home is less healthy than in the office, you’ll hear this one a lot. And they have cause for concern, to an extent—repetitive motion injuries, back and neck injuries from bad furniture, and eyestrain from bad lighting and cheap monitors are certainly a risk.
However, this risk is easily countered. When someone works from home, all a company needs to do is make sure that they have, at a minimum, appropriate space and furniture to do their jobs.
It’s not much harder than making sure that people have decent working environments at the office. If a company is truly that concerned, it’s also reasonable that they supply at least some of the equipment that will be in use.
Additionally, because there is no stigma when a remote employee stands up and walks around in their own house, the risk of repetitive strain injuries can be lower than you might find in an office environment where everyone is expected to stay at their desks and look busy.
Remote Workers Become Socially Awkward
A final quality of life issue that will come up in discussions of remote work is the notion that remote workers will become socially awkward over time from being isolated. As explained before, remote work doesn’t really imply isolation, especially not to the degree that would cause someone to lose social skills.
On the contrary, working in an office may well result in developing a degree of social awkwardness. Think about the average open office work environment of today. It’s filled with people pretending to work while trying to drown out the noise from everybody in the room.
It leads to an environment where everyone wears headphones and uses email and chat to communicate, even with the person at the next desk. People in such environments often grow to resent those around them.
Compare the actual reality of the average development office to that of the average home workspace. While neither situation is likely to result in someone sitting on a beach in a loincloth, yelling at a soccer ball on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, the average office environment seems more likely to produce frustration and irritation with co-workers.
Social isolation is not a function of where you work. It’s a function of how you work and your personality.
Another type of concern over remote work has to do with the career options of remote workers.
Like the concerns about the health and wellness of employees, concerns about the quality and longevity of employee careers are legitimate. However, these concerns often come out of an antiquated understanding of the normal career trajectory of developers and other IT professionals.
Decades ago, a recent college graduate could expect to get a job and stay in it for many years, possibly even retiring from the company. In such a scenario, it was expected that career progression was a concern of the employer as well as the employee.
However, that model of employment has been gone for years. Nobody expects to be employed by the same company for 40 years any more, but the expectations around career growth have not caught up to the reality of modern employment.
Rather than the employer being deeply interested in the career trajectories of their employees, the current model suggests that the employees are on their own. Any criticisms of remote work from the perspective of career growth must take this new paradigm into account.
Remote Work Damages Career Growth
You’ll often hear people state, without evidence, that remote work inhibits the ability of an employee to develop so that they can be promoted. Out of all the criticisms of remote work in this section, this is the only one that has some merit.
It’s not that you can’t learn what is necessary for the next stage of your career remotely but that it’s difficult to conduct all the spontaneous social interactions that may be needed to impress management enough to promote you without being in the office.
However, this is changing. With remote workers in the mix, the older methods of employee evaluation don’t work as well anymore. As time goes on, the processes for determining who should be promoted will also be forced to change.
In fact, this is already happening at many companies that are largely or fully remote. Furthermore, as the workforce becomes ever more likely to change jobs with greater frequency, the social impression you make at any one company is of decreasing value compared to the real business results you can prove.
It’s also completely possible to develop your interpersonal work relationships without being face to face all the time, though it’s certainly harder and must be done intentionally.
In other words, while there is certainly reason to be concerned about your ability to grow as a remote employee, these problems can be mitigated. In addition, being able to handle interpersonal work relationships properly is necessary to maintain the quality of your work relationships anyway.
You Can’t Train People Remotely
You’ll also hear that it is impossible to train people remotely. The idea is that everyone has to be in a room together to learn how internal systems work or that everyone has to attend work-provided training.
Essentially, when someone says this, what they are really implying is that they have no way to effectively train people remotely, nor do they have any way to record their training for future use, because either of those would go a long way toward training remote employees.
Not only are these things doable, but this assertion makes assumptions about how training and documentation that are actually bad for the company in the long term should work.
Imagine, if you will, a company that isn’t remote, that requires all new employees to go through training sitting down in a room together. This causes a number of problems for the company.
First of all, it slows down the onboarding of new employees because it is dependent on a room being available and someone being available to teach in it. Secondly, onboarding documentation is one of the most valuable types of documentation you can have if your company is growing quickly—you’ll eventually have to have onboarding resources for new employees even in a nonremote company, simply to make sure that everyone gets the same level of training.
Finally, people don’t perfectly absorb information that they are shown during onboarding, so you really should have these resources on hand for review anyway.
In essence, the inability of a company to train their employees remotely points toward other problems that will hamstring that company’s ability to grow. Like many other objections to remote work, this one is a result of bad processes that will eventually cause problems in a fully on-site company as well.
You Can’t Conduct Employee Evaluations Remotely
Another criticism of remote work that you’ll hear is that it makes annual or semiannual employee reviews more difficult. It is true that it does make it more difficult for some managers.
However, that’s offset by the number of managers who are comfortable with conducting reviews over the internet. The technology for successfully conducting reviews is inexpensive, widely available, and easy to use. Most of what happens in an in-person interview can just as easily happen over the internet using video conferencing software, and coding demonstrations can easily be done using screen-sharing technology.
For those who are currently managing teams, remote reviews are something that is going to become more common. Such reviews come with benefits for the manager, especially in regards to the flexibility of scheduling.
As it is, many managers are constantly running between meetings, sometimes in different locations. If an interview can be done remotely, it’s a lot easier to schedule without having to worry about being in the same place as the interviewee. It’s worth figuring out how to do it well.
As a manager, you need to prepare yourself for a future where remote work is more common and where managerial processes have to be conducted without the other party in the office. It’s very risky to your career to be fixated on just managing teams in a single location when the future seems increasingly unlikely to work that way.
We Can’t Accurately Measure the Performance of Remote Employees
One recurring problem with remote work is that it forces organizations to change the way they evaluate employees. Rather than the old school “butts-in-seats” style of evaluation, you have to actually evaluate employees based on the value they provide.
This can be a difficult transition, as management in many organizations is more influenced by gut feeling and face time than it would like to admit.
It is, however, a necessary transition. Much of current management practice is rooted in practices from the middle of the last century. Back then, it made sense because the amount of work completed typically correlated directly with the amount of time spent in the office.
Now, however, that is not the case, especially in knowledge-heavy disciplines involving technology. In the modern era, employees are often thinking about work outside the office.
Further, many are disengaged and thinking about something else while sitting at their desks. In short, your ability to judge employee performance as a manager is absolutely terrible if you are simply relying upon presence in the office as a measure of productivity.
Under this system, the same situation that keeps you from measuring the performance of your remote employees also makes it difficult to accurately measure the performance of your on-site employees.
Such a setup not only means that you are undervaluing your best employees, but it also tends to mean that the best employees will leave while the worst stay. If you are doing this, you are risking the health of your entire company over time. In fact, this result is so common that they call it the Dead Sea Effect.
Remote Workers Can’t Learn From Their Co-Workers
Another common misconception is that remote workers can’t learn from other workers in a collaborative sense. Frequently, when discussing this, people talk about the value of overhearing conversations in the office.
While there exist a lot of apocryphal stories about how someone overheard something and was thus able to solve a problem in the office, think back to how frequently you’ve seen that happen compared to how frequently you’ve seen a productive co-worker interrupted by random chatter in an office environment.
The assumption that remote workers are entirely isolated from their peers is in play here as well. However, as we’ve seen, that’s not the case.
Remote employees can, and should, collaborate with their co-workers as needed to get their jobs done. This collaboration also tends to be of a higher quality than similar in-office collaboration for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it doesn’t disrupt everyone else who happens to be around the “collaborators.”
Remote collaboration has to be done intentionally, with respect to the focused working time of the involved parties. It takes a lot more upfront effort to schedule a call than it does to simply walk over to someone’s desk. Consequently, people tend to be more considerate and more prepared before they interrupt someone else’s work.
It also tends to drive people to respond to questions using email instead of verbally, creating a much better “paper trail” of the informal decisions that were made. Not only does this help later on when trying to determine why certain decisions were made, but it also means that interruptive communication styles are only used when they are needed rather than just when they are preferred by certain people.
You’ll find in many offices that one or two people prefer interruptive communication styles and force their preference on everyone else. It’s an especially bad problem in open office environments where the productive, but easily distracted, find themselves continually interrupted by people who could have just sent an email.
Remote Workers Have No Control Over Their Projects
A concern that workers might have about going remote is the idea that remote workers have less input in regards to project scope, project design, and distribution of workload. In reality, this is not the case, as the remote workers are still just as involved as the on-site employees.
This is a valid concern, as some companies tend to treat their remote employees as second-class citizens, telling them that they are only interested in their results, not their input.
Such practices are a really bad idea at an organizational level, especially in an agile or “agile-like” environment, where employee input is considered critical to the success of the development process as a whole. It is very rarely an intelligent decision to play favorites with employees, and this remains true even if some of them are remote. Such a setup leads to resentment and to the best people leaving while the worst learn to play politics.
If companies want to keep good employees around, the employees need to have some say in how their work gets done. This is also true for remote employees. While the latter might stick around a little longer because it may take a little longer to find a remote job, it doesn’t mean that they won’t think about finding something else if they are left out of major decisions that impact their lives.
Remote Managers Can’t Manage On-Site Teams
Another misconception is that remote managers can’t manage on-site teams. Sometimes this comes up as a reason why a senior developer shouldn’t want to work remotely, as it may mean that they will be passed up for a promotion.
Since managers often require frequent communication with the people reporting to them, it’s not really surprising that this misconception comes up from time to time.
Management is also a bit of a culture shock, especially in your first management position and particularly when compared to the focused workday of the average information technology professional.
It’s common for a manager’s calendar to have so many meeting blocks on it that it looks like someone lost a game of Tetris. This sort of schedule requires a lot of interaction with the rest of the team, so it can be difficult to accomplish remotely in the traditional fashion.
However, remote managers don’t necessarily have to have as much direct, face-to-face interaction as their in-office counterparts. Much of on-site managerial interaction is face-to-face because that’s the easiest way to manage people in some of those environments, but it’s also one of the reasons that remote work improves employee productivity. The style of your typical on-site management makes it likely that people will be interrupted while they are trying to focus.
The aspiring remote manager should use the tools and processes of the remote team for monitoring. Instead of just walking over to someone’s desk to ask a question, they should ask the question using email or chat. Instead of stopping by to get a status update on a project, they should collect that during a brief morning “standup” meeting or with a daily reporting email.
Followed assiduously, this approach means that the manager stays out of the way of the team. This can mean that remote management actually improves on the productivity of an on-site team simply by embracing a noninterruptive workflow.
Communication and Culture
Companies are also concerned about what remote work will do to their internal methods of communication and the resulting company culture. While people will happily join a company for higher pay, better benefits, and more interesting work, a toxic or dysfunctional company culture can drive talent away.
Broken and dysfunctional company cultures are hugely expensive and can even be a threat to the long-term existence of the company. Not only do they cause good employees to leave, but they also tend to create a lot of friction for anyone who stays.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that managers and company officers are deeply concerned about what remote work might do to their internal company culture. In this section, we’ll go over some of the common concerns along with how to mitigate them effectively.
Research has shown that remote workers develop weaker relationships with their co-workers than those who are in-house. This largely occurs not because of the lack of interaction in remote environments, but because steps are not taken to help nurture good working relationships between employees.
While some of the objections do have a basis in reality, one of the main reasons for thinking through objections to remote work is to avoid having to react to them. Instead, you want to minimize discussion of objections that are reasonable and direct people toward objections that can easily be disproved with data.
Remote Work Means That You Can’t Do Team-Building Exercises
One thing I’ve heard from managers when discussing how remote work impacts their team is the notion that team-building exercises are difficult to conduct remotely.
Whether it’s a formal trip or just the team deciding to get lunch together, most managers prefer their teams to exhibit some degree of camaraderie, simply to make it easier for everyone to work together.
It’s clear that the classic model of team building is not going to work when people aren’t coming into the office. This doesn’t mean that team building can’t be done, but it does mean that you have to do it intentionally and in a way that takes remote team members into account.
There are a number of activities that you as a manager can do to formally help your team bond with one another, from quizzes to competitions.
Additionally, for the informal team bonding, you may simply want to have team members occasionally come in to the office or to another location. Your company is already saving money by allowing employees to work remotely, so you should have some funds available to fly people in if you must. Many companies have formalized this by having team retreats.
You should also be doing more to encourage informal employee interactions whether it’s by allowing people to have information conversations in a “breakroom” in your chat client or by allowing and expecting employees to chat amongst themselves during the day. So long as these conversations are not disruptive to work, they will help with team-building.
Meetings Are Harder and Less Effective With Remote Team Members
Another management concern when remote work is discussed is that meetings can be more difficult to do well when some or all of the team is working remotely. In my personal experience, this is one of the most irritating things to deal with, whether you are on-site or remote. Meetings themselves are bad enough without adding any other problems to them.
Technological issues have always been a plague on meetings with remote attendees. Whether due to software flakiness, people having trouble connecting, or even audio issues in the room, nearly every meeting seems to start with some level of frustration as the team tries to get to the point where they are actually able to communicate.
While this is absolutely a downside of remote work, there are things companies can do to mitigate this problem.
First, companies can minimize the number of meetings and their length. As anyone working in an office will tell you, very few meetings are conducted efficiently, and a lot of them are completely unnecessary in the first place. This is worth fixing even if your entire team is on-site.
Secondly, for remote meetings, you can’t just walk into a room and think everything will work on short notice. It’s great if it does, but that’s simply not the current reality with technology.
Instead, you need to set expectations that everyone will arrive a little before the start of the meeting so that there is time to get everything working without cutting into the time allocated to the meeting. Even if not everyone can arrive early, you’re still more likely to start on time if most people arrived early enough to troubleshoot their audio issues beforehand.
Another issue that crops up is that remote workers often can’t hear what is being said by people in on-site meetings due to bad acoustics in the meeting room. Generally speaking, the same bad acoustics make it harder to hear other people even if you are in the room. These bad acoustics also mean that customers and strategic partners can’t hear you either when you are calling them.
While an extended discussion of how to fix acoustics is outside of the scope of this discussion, most conference room acoustic problems can be corrected by having carpeted floors, sound-absorbing ceilings, and decorations along the walls (such as bookshelves full of books) that will keep sound waves from bouncing around the room. It’s easily fixed.
On-Site Employees Will Be Jealous of Remote Employees
Another issue that can occur is that employees who are stuck on-site will often become jealous of their remote co-workers. Working remotely is a huge perk, and it can lead to jealousy if distributed unequally.
Further, while many jobs can be conducted remotely, it’s entirely possible that not every job in a company can be done remotely in an effective manner.
For instance, companies involved in manufacturing may be able to move some work off-site, but anything requiring use of heavy equipment will have to remain on-site. Therefore, it’s possible that the people who have to come in to the office will feel jealous of those who don’t have to.
A lot of this depends on management. Frankly, jealousy still happens even if everyone is in the office. It occurs either because one group of people is treated with favoritism or is perceived as being treated that way. While having part of the staff working remotely is certainly an issue here, it is not the issue.
As a manager, you need to make sure that your employees don’t feel like you are playing favorites. Whether that is due to your in-office friendships creating jealousy or whether it is because some employees can work remotely, as a manager, you do have the responsibility of making sure that such issues are smoothed out.
Remote Workers Don’t Communicate Well With the Team
One thing I worried about as a manager of remote workers is that they might stop communicating with the team in a timely fashion. When someone is working remotely and doesn’t respond to an email, you can’t just walk over to their desk.
While this can be an issue with remote employees, it is just as common in on-site employees. Proper communication is critical regardless of where employees are located, and there is no excuse for remote employees failing to respond in a reasonable amount of time.
However, there is another issue here. It’s very common in office environments for people to wait until the last minute to send an email with the expectation that the person on the other end will drop whatever they are doing and respond. This is inappropriate and is not a problem with the recipient.
In an office environment, you’ll often see the sender of a last-minute email walking over to the recipient’s desk to ask “Did you get my email?” Preventing this sort of idiotic interaction is one of the reasons that allowing remote work is advantageous.
Allowing remote work means that those who don’t plan ahead have to deal with the consequences of their behavior rather than force the consequences on everyone else.
Allowing people to work remotely does not mean that management doesn’t need to set appropriate expectations for communication. If someone truly has to respond to emails within an hour, then that needs to be communicated to the employees. Most objections to remote work communications are the result of failed managerial communication of expectations.
Team Relationships Don’t Occur Remotely
Another common criticism of remote work is that friendships (and good working relationships in general) in remote teams don’t form as easily. This is also true. It does take real effort to build solid working relationships with other members of remote teams, especially when there is enough geographical separation that the team seldom experiences in-person interactions.
However, this criticism betrays an underlying premise that is largely false. That is, work friendships are necessary for a smoothly-running company. While it is certainly true that organically developed work friendships can significantly help a company, a lot of the benefit is due to the creation of informal processes.
If you think about good working relationships that you’ve seen between co-workers in the past, one thing that is almost always present is that both parties know how the other party works and thinks. This drives them to dynamically appropriate behavior when conducting business operations.
While I don’t intend to dismiss the value of good working relationships, at least some of their benefits can be realized by simply implementing clear processes for how systems should work and how employees should interact.
This has the added bonus of making it much easier to train new employees, as they can refer to written documentation rather than constantly asking existing employees for help (and possibly being less effective if they don’t “fit in” with the existing group).
Additionally, if your company keeps a Slack channel or other chat application open to employees, you’ll find that a surprising number of work friendships develop anyway.
Human beings are social animals and will develop friendships even across distances. It simply happens more slowly than it would with face-to-face interactions.
You Can’t Get a Hold of Remote Workers When You Need Them
Another common fear of managers when discussing remote work is that they may not be able to get in touch with remote employees when they need to do so. While one could reasonably argue that this is a feature, not a bug, that’s probably not the best way to debunk this particular concern.
Instead, it’s important to focus on why managers feel that they may need to get in touch with a remote employee on short notice. There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, especially for technology-facing positions:
● Many companies have development and other staff who are pressed into system maintenance and support roles. Because systems don’t tend to break at convenient times, management may have a legitimate concern that a remote employee will simply refuse to communicate if the system fails at a bad time.
● Many companies have poor scheduling practices in general, with management deciding on meetings with little warning. A remote team makes this harder and forces management to act in a disciplined fashion, which some managers don’t like very much.
● Some companies are early in their developmental stages and are rapidly changing their requirements in response to their customers or investors.
● Some companies are still stuck in the mindset that productivity is measured by “butts in seats,” and their concern about being able to contact their employees is based around “checking in to make sure they are working.”
● Some companies bill their clients based on the number of hours that their employees spend doing the work. If the employees are slacking off at home and out of reach, that essentially means that the clients are possibly overpaying.
While these concerns are all legitimate, much of the fear about being unable to reach remote workers is overblown. For most jobs these days, you are required to be connected to your co-workers anyway, just to get things done.
Rare indeed is the position that allows you to completely disconnect for days at a time with no human interaction. More than likely, if someone can’t be reached during an emergency, they were probably unreachable before the emergency.
The latter is a problem that should be handled before an emergency situation occurs, since it indicates that someone is not communicating effectively with the team.
In addition to the usual points about how “remote work is going to ruin your life, career, and the company,” there are also some practical business concerns that come up when remote work is discussed.
While you personally may want to work remotely, your organization still has to be able to run effectively. The functioning of the organization will always be a much higher priority to your boss than your personal happiness, so you need to be able to address management’s concerns about business operations.
Not only does being able to handle concerns about business operations make it more likely that you’ll be allowed to work remotely, but it also changes the conversation from being about what you want to being about what the company needs.
Remember, you want to sell the idea of working remotely based on what it can do for the company, not based on what it can do for you. It’s far easier to negotiate with most people by negotiating based on self-interest rather than charity.
Remote Work Increases Costs
Management may be concerned that remote workers will increase costs. This can be in regards to anything from requiring additional VPN connections and the bandwidth to support them, to additional work that has to be done for regulatory compliance with remote employees. The sad fact is that there are additional costs to enable remote work in a secure fashion, especially when you consider things like VPN clients with per-seat licensing, additional security requirements, and possibly additional software licenses.
However, for fully remote employees, the additional costs are offset by the money saved by not having to have a physical office for the employees in question. If employees are only partially remote, however, this is still a problem.
In this case, instead of debating costs, it’s often better to point out that such expenditures will need to occur anyway in order for the company to be resilient to things like weather events and other natural disasters. While you may need things like VPN software licenses for remote workers, those things are also required for those same workers to be able to work remotely in the event of inclement weather.
Because business continuity is a major concern for most companies, it’s often helpful to point out that remote access to systems is going to be necessary in the event of major disruptions to business. In essence, these costs need to be paid anyway, and remote work has little to do with it.
Remote Work Constitutes a Security Risk
Many companies are rightly concerned about the potential security issues posed by remote workers. While corporate networks tend to be locked down with active threat scanning and restricted access to dodgy websites, doing the same for the home computers of employees is not so simple.
For one thing, if an employee is using their own machine for remote work, they probably don’t want corporate snooping, nor do they want to lock their machine down using the same kind of policy that their company might use.
For instance, many companies don’t want their employees using streaming video services during the workday both because of the cost of bandwidth and because of the sort of problems that this traffic poses (lots of it is porn, pirated movies or at the very least, videos unrelated to work).
Additionally, home computers may not have the most recent security patches, might be used by third parties who aren’t employed by the company, or may be infected with viruses and other malware. When these machines connect to an improperly configured corporate network, the result can be anything from the spreading of an infection, to taking down the entire system and causing data loss.
The implications for corporate security are profound and terrifying to security and compliance staff. And that’s before the company considers what happens when home computers are stolen and used maliciously elsewhere or what happens when an employee is fired.
However, much of the concern about security from home computers joining the corporate network is exactly the same set of problems that you have in an office when a less responsible employee is using a company computer. It’s also the same set of problems that occur when employees (such as executives and salespeople) take a company laptop to a trade show or a client’s office.
When such laptops return, it’s entirely possible for them to be compromised in some fashion, which means they can cause havoc on improperly secured company networks. In effect, if you have people who leave the building with a company laptop, you already have security concerns that are very similar to those you have with remote employees.
A long time ago, companies could secure their networks by simply having a firewall at the perimeter with strong policies about what could get into or come out of the network. Those days are long gone, and in most networks you are probably safer to assume that any traffic on the network is potentially hostile.
This means that network personnel have to lock down and protect company machines individually as well as securing the perimeter of the network. As a result, many of the security concerns posed by remote workers should already be handled as a result of properly securing the network. In effect, the company must lock down their critical internal infrastructure regardless of whether people work remotely or not.
If the company doesn’t want to properly secure the network, then it’s only a matter of time before they have a major breach regardless of whether they allow remote work or not. While some degree of security preparedness is required on the computers of the remote workers, the critical part of the security equation is the protection of sensitive systems and data, most of which do not need to reside on employee workstations.
Remote Work Decreases Productivity
Another common theme you hear when discussing remote employees is the concern that remote employees will be less productive than on-site employees. While this is certainly possible, especially if the employee is not using their time effectively, it’s far from universal.
The best way to counter this objection is to slowly build up a substantial amount of proof that shows that this assertion is unfounded. It’s easy for people to derail these discussions with “what if,” but it’s a lot harder to dispute data that indicates the opposite of their viewpoint.
Later on, we’ll be discussing some strategies for making sure that data is available before having this discussion, but essentially the idea is to prove that you can work remotely on a very limited basis before arguing that you should do so more often.
Additionally, one thing people fail to consider when discussing “productivity” is the actual meaning of the word in the context of the business. For far too many, “productivity” tends to mean “butts in seats” instead of something that actually drives the business forward.
You will need to agree on what “productivity” actually is and how to measure it before you can really have this discussion. A word to the wise: Most management you end up dealing with doesn’t have a very useful definition of it either.
Remote Workers Can’t Work Without an Internet Connection
You’ll also occasionally hear managers assert that remote employees can’t work without an internet connection. Depending on the tools you are using, this is possibly entirely true. However, neither can the people in the office. Internet access is almost as essential for productivity in most tech jobs as electrical power is.
So the real issue here is the stability of the home internet connection to the open internet and the stability of the office connection to the internet. If either of these fails and internet interactivity is required, then the remote workers won’t be able to get their jobs done. It’s also very true that home internet is often less reliable than office internet.
While it is reasonable to consider internet access to be a risk when people are working outside of the office, it’s important to realize that relying on stable internet connections is probably riskier than you might think.
The office internet could easily go out or the internal network could be disrupted. If so, does the business continue to function? If not, then remote work has little to do with it—you just have a bad risk profile in regards to internet access.
If, however, on-site employees can effectively work without internet access but remote employees cannot, it’s up to management to figure out why that is.
Are there resources on the internal network that are unavailable to the remote employees if the network is down? Do you rely on remote employees using a VPN and then remote desktop to connect to the machines to work? If so, then yes, you have a problem.
However, that same problem also poses a risk to continuity of business if your office becomes unusable. In other words, a company’s ability to support remote employees is indicative of their resilience in the face of natural disaster, damage to a building, and the like.
It’s important not only to handle this but to frequently test it to make sure that your backup plan still works—remote employees are a good way to test this every single day.
Remote Workers Still Have to Come in Occasionally, What Then?
Another concern crops up when remote workers have to come into the office. Whether it is for quarterly meetings, face-to-face reviews, or training, it is common for remote staff to have to come in at least on occasion. When they do come in to the office, here are some examples of the issues that need to be resolved:
● Where will they sit?
● What equipment will they be using while on-site?
● How will they be productive while they are in the office?
● How will they get to the office (and what will it cost) if they live out of range of an easy commute?
● How much disruption will the remote workers cause for the on-site employees?
These concerns are valid. It’s unusual for a position to be truly 100% remote. What is more common is some mix of remote and on-site. This can be anything from employees working remotely on occasions when they need to do so to a job that is remote except for a yearly on-site visit.
When remote employees come in, they are going to need a place to sit, equipment to use, a way to get there, and the ability to be productive.
One way to mitigate this problem is to make sure that the trips into the office are actually necessary, and are limited in scope and time. This makes it far easier to schedule appropriate resources and to limit the amount of disruption that the on-site employees experience.
Many of the disruptions caused by remote employees coming on-site are caused by a lack of preparation, unclear goals for the visit, or by not having a good idea of what tools will be available on-site. This is easily handled with good planning.
A recurring theme when discussing remote work is how it forces companies and individuals to plan ahead, have clear goals, and make better use of the resources they have available.
Remote Workers Are Difficult to Manage
Managers are often concerned about remote employees because they can be harder to manage. When you don’t see someone face-to-face every day, it can be difficult to gauge how they feel about their job, how heavy their workload really is, and what, if anything, is bothering them.
Due to the lack of informal conversations, it is easy to be surprised when an employee is not doing well. This can lead to losing good employees because of perfectly preventable problems.
In effect, this can be an issue only when management collects information simply by walking around and talking to people. While this is helpful in an office environment, there are two issues with it.
The first is that it ends up being highly subjective, with managers not collecting good metrics on employees. The second is that such a process often misses performance problems until those problems have become so severe that they can’t escape notice.
Good management practices require some ability to collect and process metrics on employees in a dispassionate manner. This is true of both on-site and remote employees. The difference is that with remote employees, managers aren’t able to use the more error-prone and subjective measures of employee performance.
You might think subjective measurements, while not accurate, don’t constitute a risk to the company, but they can actually be extremely risky. Not only do you risk losing your best people while promoting the incompetent, but there is also the risk that you can easily appear to be discriminating in some fashion.
If you don’t have objective metrics to back up your decisions, it’s going to be a lot harder to prove that you weren’t discriminating. In yet another example of a recurring theme, allowing people to work remotely forces businesses to use good practices that can protect them from problems down the road.
Every Company Needs an Office, Eventually
Another practical excuse that you hear when talking about remote work is that “every company needs an office, eventually.” While this was true at one point, it is no longer the case for an increasing number of companies.
As technology and management practices evolve, the need to have everyone together in the same building decreases. For many companies, there is no need to have a single office at all, and for the rest, the trend points toward further decentralization, lower rents, and no office.
It’s easy to miss trends like this, especially while running your own business. I’m turning 40 in October 2019, and I can remember a very well-known billionaire businessman saying that investing in the internet was not a good idea and that people would lose a lot of money messing with it.
He was right in the short term, as the market crash in the early 2000s proved. However, over the longer term, his earlier statements have proved to be incorrect. The same guy has even walked back from these statements himself and has since come to regret not buying stock in Amazon and Google years ago.
While it’s easy to pick on a single investor, realize that this is one of the most plugged-in people on the planet in regards to his ability to see broad industry trends and react to them. He still missed some very profound and long-term trends. Your manager doesn’t even have that much information and is similarly ignoring a trend line that is already making itself apparent in many places.
Jealousy and Ad Hominem
This is the final category of arguments that is brought to bear when remote work is suggested. Not only are all of these completely wrong, fear-based, and vaguely insulting, but they are also often the first to come up. You will be dealing with these objections frequently as you transition toward a more remote role.
These arguments are especially pernicious because they have little basis in fact and are designed to put you on the defensive. Think about how many arguments you’ve won while being on the defensive—probably very few. In other words, this is a tactic to shut down the discussion, and you’ll have to learn how to counter it if you want to take advantage of the kind of positive life changes that remote work can bring.
Remote Workers Spend All Day in Their Pajamas
Whenever remote work comes up, what most people say first is something regarding spending all day in your pajamas, not having to wear pants, or not even bathing.
This is a very strange assertion when you think about it, given that no one makes similar assertions about weekends or vacations. Odds are pretty good that when you started wanting to work remotely, “pantlessness” was probably not highest on your list of concerns. While you can wear more comfortable, casual clothing to work at home, this particular phrasing is unusual.
Most remote workers will, at some point, fail to change out of their pajamas or even clean up well before working. Initially, may think “why does my appearance matter if I’m not getting on a call?”
If you are anything like me, you’ll also notice that you are somewhat less effective and easier to distract when you do that. Dressing at least somewhat appropriately for work is actually a pretty good way to draw a solid boundary between the way you conduct yourself while working and during leisure time.
You learn pretty quickly that being sloppy while working at home leads to sloppy work done at home, and most people seem to realize that being sloppy is not really sustainable.
When a person tells you that remote employees don’t have to put pants on when they work from home, you should ask them if that is what they would do if they were in that position. Their assertion may be a projection of what they probably would do in that situation, or it may be something that they just picked from the culture and haven’t really thought about.
If you need a rough estimate of how often people repeat things that are false but sound witty, listening to the average person talk about politics for 10 minutes should demonstrate that it is a common phenomenon. It’s no less common with emotionally charged topics in an office environment.
It’s very difficult to convince someone that remote work is a good idea without evidence to back you up. The misconception that remote workers are slobs is a prime example of it. Before you have a conversation that might end up with this as a discussion point, it’s a good idea to already have some data that backs you up.
Later on, we’ll discuss how to do just that. In the meantime, it’s best to avoid bringing up the subject with people who might use this style of objection to dismiss the idea.
Remote Workers Watch TV All Day
Another common misconception is that remote workers watch TV or are otherwise distracted all day. While it’s certainly possible that at least some workers do this, it isn’t particularly common for a variety of reasons.
In the first place, it’s hard to be productive at an acceptable level when watching TV at the same time. Unlike an office environment where someone can essentially goof off for hours as long as they stay in their cubicle, when you work at home, the only real indicator of your work ethic is what you get done.
This tends to put pressure on remote employees, causing them to work harder to make sure that it is obvious that they are being productive.
Additionally, it’s generally a better practice to have completely separate areas for being entertained and doing work. This not only keeps you from being distracted by entertainment while working, but it also lets you relax when you aren’t working rather than lettingwork seep into your personal time.
From working remotely off and on for years, I can tell you that you are far more likely to have work intrude into your personal life than the other way around when working from home.
In fact, later we’ll be discussing why a solid boundary between work and home is even more critical when you work out of the house. Overworking from home is a much more serious and likely problem than underworking from home, provided that you already have a decent work ethic and are motivated to do your job.
Remote Workers Shouldn’t Get the Same Salary
Another common tactic used to stop discussion about working remotely is the implication that a remote worker should not be paid the same as someone who comes into the office even if they complete exactly as much work. While this sounds valid on the surface, it’s pretty easily disarmed.
When this comes up, ask the person making this statement whether the extra effort of physically coming into the office actually provides value to the company at all. Remember, by the time you are having these conversations, you should already have evidence that you can work remotely at least as effectively as you can in the office.
So if the same work is being accomplished in either location, what is the business value of forcing everyone to undergo an unpleasant, stressful commute while wasting time and gas?
You see, if the same amount of work is being accomplished while improving the lives of employees, reducing turnover, and making the company more resilient, there really needs to be a good reason to pay more not to have those things. It’s pretty simple.
What If They Are Just Playing With Their Kids Instead of Working?
Sometimes, managers worry that remote workers with kids will be spending their entire day playing with them instead of working. While there is probably some legitimate concern that people with very young children may spend an inordinate amount of time caring for them, it’s not much of a concern for older children.
If you have very small children, you probably do need to make sure that there is appropriate child care for them. You cannot deal with all the interruptions posed by very small children and manage the sort of productivity your employer will be expecting of you.
I don’t mean to downplay the large amount of value that parents can bring to the table remotely, but you will have a lot of problems if you try to work remotely for an extended period with small children and no child care. On the plus side, your children will still spend a lot less time in day care than they might otherwise simply because you don’t have a commute.
When your children are old enough to not need constant close supervision, you can probably get away with having them in the house while you work. Depending on their age, you may need to check on them frequently, but it’s very doable by the time they are 7 or 8 years old, in most cases.
However, the practicality of working remotely with children in the house is not the real issue when someone brings this concept up. The real issue is that they are concerned that you will not be efficient and productive when you are working remotely. Once again, you should already have some evidence that you can be productive remotely under normal circumstances before having a conversation that heads in this direction.
When you present proof to someone that you can work effectively from your house while your children are there, it’s not a good look for them to continue pressing the issue, as it gets very close to the sort of discussions that HR doesn’t like.
In this case, if you’ve proven that you can work well from home even with the kids there, someone continuing to press the issue can easily look like they are discriminating against you for having children.
Once you have solid proof of your work ethic, they are going to find something else to go after. One of the main reasons for thinking through objections to remote work is to avoid having to react to objections. Instead, you want to minimize the number of objections that are reasonable and direct people toward objections that can easily be disproved with data.
What If They Are Working for Someone Else and Billing Us?
A lot of companies are concerned that their remote workers may be working on their own projects or contract work for another company while they are on the clock. While there are security and intellectual property concerns in this area that we discussed earlier, this particular objection tends to be more focused around the idea that you are billing two companies at the same time for work.
This one is pretty easy to counter. If I can do two jobs at the same time and have a decent life working from home, that means that the office is destroying productivity at such a level that people are engaged in productive work less than half the time they are there.
This isn’t an argument for making everyone stay in the office. Rather, it’s an argument for sending everyone home where they can work more effectively. Unless you believe that your entire workforce will either be working halftime or working two jobs, such an exercise will quickly show what a real “day’s worth of work” actually is rather than whatever it currently is considered to be.
Even if an employee does find time to start doing work for another company, exactly the same thing can happen on the clock at the office. I’ve worked in multiple companies where people were working on their own stuff while supposedly “working” for the company. I’ve seen people spend hours talking on the phone about their side business or even trying to get co-workers and clients to spend money with them.
The real truth is that lots of people are going to have a business on the side. Whether it is consulting, selling some kind of product, or even the typical multilevel marketing scam, a pretty sizable portion of employees have a second job.
Not only are they likely to have something else, but the employer is unlikely to be able to stop it or even detect it if they are moderately careful, even if it is happening in the office. This is especially true given how many people bring fairly powerful smartphones into the office these days. Given this, a smarter reaction is to allow them to work from home and carefully monitor to make sure that they are getting their work done.
If they are, they will value their day job more highly than they would if they were made to go into the office, since a commute will waste time that they need for their second job. In effect, instead of the company assuming that they can control whether their employees are doing something on the side, they are setting things up so that the employees can successfully have a side business.
While counterintuitive, this approach means that barring their side business becoming a full time business, they need to make sure that the employer remains happy with their productivity in order to keep both their day job and their side business. This approach offers better leverage to the employer while allowing the employee to pursue the kind of life they want as well.
All of the previous arguments assume that the employer can adequately measure their employees’ performance at work. If they can’t do that, then they may well have people working for someone else on the clock even while in the office.
The Subtle Art of Countering Objections to Remote Work
It’s easy to counter objections to remote work if you know how to do it. Misconceptions about how remote workers get their jobs done are widespread and usually very poorly argued. With just a little bit of effort in advance, you will be better prepared to handle objections to remote work than the average person.
Additionally, as you become more aware of common objections to remote work, you should begin thinking of ways to counteract those objections by improving your own work environment, skills, and processes.
Remember that when someone objects to an idea, that doesn’t mean that they are unwilling to consider it. It simply means that it is going to take more work to convince them. Since working remotely is a fairly new concept, that means that a lot of upfront work on your part is going to be necessary to make a good first impression of remote work on them.